.How Race Became Part of the Watsonville Urban Limit Line Debate

Opponents of Measure Q point to an electoral system that has failed Latinx residents

Can the preservation of agricultural land be racist?

It’s a question that many politicians would shy away from answering, but one that Francisco “Paco” Estrada has seemingly leaned into.

Last year, the first-term Watsonville City Councilman tore a chasm between the city and a committee aiming to preserve Pajaro Valley’s rich farmlands. During what was expected to be a brief update on the city’s efforts to overhaul its general plan at a city council meeting, Estrada unloaded an emotional statement about Watsonville’s current issues with housing affordability and economic stagnation.

“We have all these small groups telling us how we can grow, how we can build our city—they tell us what type of transportation we can and can’t have—where’s the democracy there?” Estrada asked. “The needs of the people are not being met … It’s hard to not call out the racism in all of this.”

With less than 60 days before Watsonville voters will head to the polls to decide the fate of a proposed 18-year extension of the city’s current urban growth restrictions, Estrada is not backing away from his statements. On the contrary, he’s doubling down on his assertions that the way the Committee for Planned Growth and Farmland Protection crafted Measure Q is undemocratic, and that there need to be more conversations about Measure U’s legacy and whether its proposed successor will contribute to institutional racism.

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As he talks about how many Watsonville residents will not be able to sound their voice on Nov. 8—an election he says will chart the future of at least two generations—Estrada begins to slow his breakneck train of thought to make something clear.

“I’m not calling anyone a racist,” he tells me in a late-summer interview, “but I think it’s important to talk about whether this measure contributes to racism. When I look at the health outcomes in this community, it’s always people of color that have the most disproportionate outcome. In every major indicator, people of color are at the bottom of everything.”

On their ballots, Watsonville voters will see two measures that propose drastically different options for how Santa Cruz County’s southernmost city can plan out its future. The aforementioned Measure Q—a product of the agriculture industry-backed committee—would keep the outward growth restrictions approved by voters in 2002 in place through 2040. Measure S—placed on the ballot by the city council in opposition—proposes to alter the city’s so-called Urban Limit Line as determined by the city council in its forthcoming general plan update, a multi-year community visioning process that jurisdictions undergo.

Though the two measures deal primarily with land-use designations, proponents of Measure S say that the issue before Watsonville voters is about social justice and autonomy. 

“Do we want to control our own future, or do we want someone else to tell us what community we should be?” Estrada says. “I really think that’s what’s at stake.”

Measure of Success

The city and the committee over the past year have had heated debates about whether Measure U has accomplished what it intended when more than 60% of voters approved it two decades ago.

Proponents of Measure Q say that Measure U’s growth restrictions have had an overwhelmingly positive effect on Watsonville over the past 19 years. They say that preserving agricultural land has not only kept the Pajaro Valley’s strong presence in the industry intact, but has also forced the city to focus on dense, infill development and limit urban sprawl. And, they add, there are still plenty of underutilized and vacant properties throughout the city that can be redeveloped to help the city meet its mounting housing and economic needs—in July the city said downtown could accommodate around 4,000 new units when its Downtown Watsonville Specific Plan efforts are completed next year.

Opponents, however, say Measure U has hamstrung the city’s ability to adequately build housing—specifically, single-family homes for purchase—and lure large employers and economic drivers commonplace in other cities.

Estrada says allowing Measure U to expire and conducting the general plan process not only gives the community the opportunity to envision its future together, but it also allows the public to truly dive into the pluses and minuses of preserving ag land at all costs. 

“For [the committee] to just copy and paste [Measure U], that’s where I felt it was undemocratic,” he says. “For something that’s going to last an entire generation, the community needs to be present in these conversations. I think there are a lot of voices, a lot of good opinions, a lot of good things we haven’t taken into consideration yet. And to just put it on the ballot and try to pretend like [Measure U] has been a complete success when, honestly, if you talk to any Millennial they’ll tell you that the last 20 years have not been a success.”

It was a year-long community visioning process that produced Measure U, which Watsonville City Councilwoman Rebecca Garcia calls a historic compromise that gathered feedback and opinions from all corners of the community. By the time it went before voters, Measure U was endorsed by the city council, Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau and Watsonville Wetlands Watch as well as several other county and state agencies. It garnered that support because neither side got everything it wanted, Garcia adds.

“Twenty years ago there were so many meetings where negotiation and compromise occurred to determine the urban limit,” Garcia says. “I attended many of those meetings. Watsonville has changed in the past 20 years, so there should have been negotiation and compromise again. But instead, the committee chose only to get signatures.”

Committee member Sam Earnshaw says that opponents’ claims that Measure Q is undemocratic are “ridiculous,” and that if the city truly wanted to negotiate in good faith about making slight changes to the Urban Limit Line, those discussions would have happened years ago.

He also points out that Watsonville voters not only overwhelmingly approved Measure U, but that they also rejected Measure T, a 2013 ballot measure that would have opened the door for the city to annex about 95 acres of agricultural land off Riverside Drive for future development.

“The people of Watsonville understand the need for growth, but are very opposed to sprawl onto our fertile farmlands,” Earnshaw says. “We consistently heard people saying that we do not want to turn into San Jose, and annexing agricultural lands, piece by piece, is how incrementally the paving over more and more flat land builds momentum.”

Earnshaw adds that despite the committee’s hardline stance on the preservation of agricultural land, it still worked with the city to come up with a compromise to their measure. That agreement, which would have opened up 13.6 acres to commercial development near Highway 1, was tossed out by the city council in a split 4-3 vote earlier this year.

“Four council members voted against this, and lost the opportunity for the Redman-Hirahara property to finally be part of Watsonville,” Earnshaw says. “It was a historic compromise, and a historic decision to reject this for the city.”

Earnshaw was largely dismissive of questions about voting rights and simply said that “voting on an issue is the essence of democracy.”

Voting Conundrum

While using an election to settle controversial issues might be the best option for some communities, that has not always been the case for Watsonville—a city of roughly 55,000 residents that has several thousand Latinx people who cannot vote for various reasons. Watsonville elections have a mixed history that is punctuated by the Supreme Court decision in 1989 that found Watsonville’s at-large elections were limiting the potential for Latinx representation.

And while some say that elections and representation in Watsonville politics have improved since that landmark decision, others think that the historic implementation of district elections is slowly being chipped away, and that nothing is being done to address growing political apathy. The recent June primary, for example, saw the lowest percentage of registered voters (24.26%) cast their ballots in the race for 4th District County Supervisor since at least the turn of the century. And in the upcoming Nov. 8 election, three city council candidates will walk into office unopposed.

It is easy for Francisco Rodriguez to draw parallels between 2022 and 2012, when four people ran unopposed for the city council. The former President of the Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers says that the city nor the community ever made a concerted effort to truly address the issues perpetuating political apathy—like, he suggests, making government more accessible for Spanish-speaking residents and working with local educators to increase political interest among youth.

Instead, a committee called Let the People Vote proposed three measures that, Rodriguez says, shifted political power away from a majority Latinx city council under the guise of increasing political engagement. Those measures—H, I and J—revoked the city council’s power to fill a vacancy, elect a mayor and name public places.

Rodriguez, who campaigned heavily against the trio of measures in 2014, says that by taking those decisions away from the council and sending them to a city-wide election, the Let the People Vote committee successfully undermined the city’s district election system and set a precedent for other campaigns to follow. 

Rodriguez and his peers in opposition to the measures called the Let the People Vote committee’s efforts “undemocratic” and said that they were racially motivated. He still sticks by those claims today.

“I don’t think the H, I, J proposals changed anything and the argument can be that [they] may have made things worse,” Rodriguez says.

Come November 

Councilwoman Garcia is a staunch supporter of elections—one of her favorite pastimes is running a voter registration booth at local events—but admits that they have limitations in the Pajaro Valley.

“Voting is part of democracy, but in Watsonville, we have a lot of ineligible voters,” says Garcia. “In a democracy, these residents’ voices should still be heard, if not by voting [then] by having the opportunity to speak out. [Measure Q] was not inclusive, including those that are registered to vote.”

As the election draws near, Garcia and other Measure S supporters have shifted their focus from explaining why they believe Measure Q is problematic to why voters should side with them.

That has not been an easy task, Estrada admits. After all, he says, most Watsonville voters will have never heard of a general plan, let alone an Urban Limit Line. But, he adds, they do drive by agricultural land every day and likely have some emotional tie to the agriculture industry from their upbringing.

“It’s just a lot to have to educate the public about,” Estrada says. “But, at the end of the day, whether they side with us or not, educating the public about the issue is the most important thing.”

Estrada says that a key demographic for the election will be Watsonville residents under 35. With 4,664 registered voters between the age of 25-35 and another 4,041 between the age of 18-25, Watsonville’s younger population vastly outnumbers any other combination of older age groups, according to county voting data. But Estrada admits it will be a challenge to get those voters to the polls in similar numbers to their older counterparts, even if he thinks they have the most at stake when it comes to Measure Q and S.

Asked what his pitch to this group will be, he says he plans to tell voters to ask themselves one question: “Are you happy with the progress made in the last 20 years?” 

“Because if you’re happy, then I think you should support [Measure Q],” Estrada says. “But if you think this community deserves more and needs more than we’ve gotten … then support [Measure S]. Me, personally, I believe that we deserve to determine our own future.”

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